Image: The lucky couple
Seth Wenig  /  AP file
Dan Kelleher and Kristin Petty beat out 119 others in an online essay contest organized by merchants in Brandon, Vt., winning a "free" wedding valued at $40,000. On Sept. 1, they'll tie the knot in an outdoors ceremony in front of 100 family members and friends.
updated 5/10/2007 7:21:05 PM ET 2007-05-10T23:21:05

Lawyer Jeffrey Smith is providing the prenuptial agreement. Floral designer Beth Carr will kick in the corsages. Chef Robert Barral of Cafe Provence is handling the cake. The reception is set for the Lilac Inn, and the rehearsal dinner is being planned at an 18th-century inn just across the street.

Even dentist Thomas Coleman is pitching in. He'll be cleaning the happy couple's teeth.

Best of all for Kristin Petty and Dan Kelleher: Their dream wedding is on the house, paid for by perfect strangers in a place they've never been.

The New York couple beat out 119 others in an online essay contest organized by merchants in this small Vermont town to win a "free" wedding valued at $40,000. On Sept. 1, they'll tie the knot in an outdoors ceremony in front of 100 family members and friends.

"Destination weddings are big business in Vermont, and we were looking for a way to build on that," said Lilac Inn co-owner Shelly Sawyer, 58, who came up with the idea. "We thought, `Why don't we give away a wedding?"

Of the 5,532 marriages held in Vermont in 2005, nearly one-third (1,723) were between out-of-state residents, according to statistics from the state Department of Health.

Erica Houskeeper, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, said the state provides both "a wide range of activities and remarkable scenic beauty," from steepled New England villages to mountains and lakes. Some couples are drawn by memories of vacations past.

"This is a huge, booming industry for our state," said Krista Washburn, publisher of Vermont Vows, a wedding magazine.

Among the wedding hot spots: The Woodstock Inn and Resort in Woodstock, the Hartness House in Springfield and ski resorts in Stowe, Bolton and Killington. Couples who marry at the White Rocks Inn in Wallingford can hold their reception in a big red barn that dates to 1888 and is listed on the National Register for Historic Places.

"Some people think when they're coming that it's cow pasture after cow pasture. What we have is phenomenal venues, amazingly talented floral designers, lighting companies, event rental companies and cake designers that are as good as that one in New York City," Washburn added.

The free wedding contest won by Petty and Kelleher, dubbed "The Brandon Is For Brides Great Wedding Giveaway," was conceived as a promotion aimed at bolstering the destination wedding trade in this southern Vermont town.

It posed two queries:

  • "Describe your perfect Vermont dream wedding."
  • "Tell us a story: Make us laugh, make us cry, tell us a tale of love or triumph."

To get the wedding giveaway contest up and running, the Lilac Inn owners approached Janet Mondlak, executive director of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce. She, in turn, appealed to the group's 180 members for goods and services they could contribute to the effort.

Caleb Kenna agreed to be the photographer. A supermarket pitched in with a $100 gift certificate for wedding-weekend incidentals. The folks at Lasso'd Moon Designs volunteered to do the invitations. Delilah's Hairstyling chipped in with hairstyles for four.

By the time the contest was announced, 30 businesses had agreed to participate. Travel expenses, clothing for the bridesmaids and ushers and alcohol are the only things not covered.

"Everyone was just really on board with it. It's one of the few times I've sent out a solicitation and didn't have to beat people over the head to respond," said Mondlak.

The idea was equally appealing to cash-strapped couples.

Entries — most written by women — poured in from 17 states and two countries, many of them telling tales of disease, dysfunction and debt that could be remedied ... if only they got the free wedding.

"When we said `Make us laugh and make us cry,' we thought we'd get more love stories," said Mondlak. "We got a lot of physical pain and agony stories, and some were hard to read because of that."

A six-member panel reviewed the entries, narrowing the field to three finalists, one of whom dropped out.

Petty, 30, a recruiter for a Manhattan advertising agency, had never heard of Brandon, Vt., until she came across a mention of the contest in a newspaper. On a lark, she decided to apply — she didn't tell her fiance — and wrote the winning entry after an exasperating weekend spent scouting reception halls.

"Why should we win? I don't have a funny or magical story of fate. But I do believe that we have more love, more heart and more strength than many couples today. We will work hard to make our marriage a success, because we have worked hard for everything we have now. And we will appreciate this blessing more than I can express in these 500 words," she wrote.

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She also wrote of wanting her marriage "to last and triumph through adversity, to maintain a sense of grace and charm through the years, and to be a place where happiness begins and lasts forever."

Petty and her fiance will travel to Brandon in May so she can be fitted for her dress at JoAnne's Bridal Boutique.

he town is getting ready, too. Wedding cake replicas will be placed in Brandon's shop windows this summer, to help drum up interest among those who haven't heard of it yet. But that's a shrinking group, as word of the contest and the preparations for the wedding spread through town.

"This is a dinky little town of 4,000 that's doing this," said Bernie Carr, the floral designer's husband. "This is pretty cool."

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